Peter Bagge

For two decades, Peter Bagge has been making comics, a craft that often goes unappreciated, as he'll be the first to point out. Beginning his professional career contributing to Mad's poor cousin Cracked and various pornographic magazines, Bagge found his place in the alternative-comics scene of the '80s, editing Robert Crumb's Weirdo and starting his own title, Neat Stuff, in 1985. Eventually, Bagge introduced the Bradleys, the dysfunctional family whose ups and downs (mostly downs) he continues to chronicle, in various forms, to this day. In 1990, Bagge launched Hate, which followed surly teenager Buddy Bradley as he embarked on a life of his own in Seattle (where Bagge lives today). With its flannel-clad hero and suddenly hip location, Hate became identified with the grunge scene of the early '90s. In 1994, Buddy moved back to New Jersey and the comic moved from black-and-white to color. After 30 issues, collected in a series of trade paperbacks, Bagge last year called an end to Hate and, at least for now, the comic-book adventures of the Bradleys. Busy, as always, as an illustrator and a writer, Bagge is also at work attempting to turn Hate into an animated TV series. He spoke about this and various other subjects in a recent interview with The Onion.

The Onion: Hi, are you ready to do an interview?

Peter Bagge: Sure. Hang on one second. [Pauses.] I had to turn off... I was listening to Britney Spears. [Laughs.]

O: I won't print that.

PB: No, I don't care. She's all right. I'm always raiding my daughter's record collection because I actually like a lot of the bubblegum she's been listening to. I actually think a lot of it is great stuff.

O: I kind of agree with you. I never turn off the Britney Spears song when it's on.

PB: Have you heard or seen B*Witched?

O: No.

PB: Oh, they're fantastic! When I first read about them, I was prepared for the worst, because I remember reading that their music was like current R&B and hip-hop beats combined with traditional Irish folk music, and I was like, "guhhh." But it actually works great. The two combine really great, and it's a really fantastic record.

O: It doesn't sound like the two could work together.

PB: Yeah, but I'm sure if you'd never heard The Beach Boys and somebody told you that they combined Chuck Berry with the Four Freshmen, you'd be like, "What the fuck." [Laughs.] You never know what's going to work.

O: So, have you mostly been working on the HBO series since Hate ended?

PB: The last issue of Hate came out last May, and Hate was still tied up option-wise with MTV.

O: How come that didn't pan out?

PB: Umm... Well, from my perspective, the reasons for not running it don't hold any water. But I'm hardly an objective person to ask. With every station, there are so many things in development that only a few can come out the other end. So any old reason at all, no matter how flaky or incongruous, that anyone could come up with not to air something could be a factor. Two big problems happened at MTV. One, it was in a horserace with a bunch of other animated shows that were being developed at the same time, and they just simply didn't have the money to produce more than one. All along, only one of those four shows was going to be turned into an animated TV series. And one show was a bit farther along, development-wise, than mine was. They actually focus-grouped that twice. The first time they did it, it didn't do so well. Then they tweaked it and focus-grouped it again with Hate, and from what I understand, people who were there seemed to think it tested a bit better than Hate did when it was focus-grouped. So they simply went with that. Even though no one would flat out admit it to me, by green-lighting that show there was simply no money left to make Hate.

O: Did you finish a whole pilot for it?

PB: No, I wish we did. We made an animatic, which is like a short, limited animated thing. It's almost like a filmed storyboard. It ran at eight minutes, which is actually long for an animatic. They're usually three to five minutes, so it's much shorter than a full episode would have been, and it wasn't fully animated. And after that, I did write a full pilot script. But that was that.

O: HBO seems like a more logical home for Hate.

PB: Um, yeah. Again, another thing that left Hate high and dry at MTV is that when I first was brought in there, what they were trying to do was recapture their older demographic, which they'd been losing. I guess they tell their advertisers that their viewers are between 12 and 24. But the 17- to 24-year-olds have been watching MTV less and less. It's pretty much just watched by Beavis and Butt-Head now. And they wanted to capture the older demographic, relatively speaking, by putting on more mature shows. Hate fit that category. It totally fit the bill and was exactly what they thought they needed to recapture college-age kids. By the time this new guy came in, his mantra was, "Forget it." With the proliferation of cable stations being what it is, he said, everyone has to narrow down what they think is their demographic and just pick a certain group and give them exactly what they want, 24-7. So now the new mantra is, "Let's sacrifice the 17- to 24-year-olds and give the 14-year-old males exactly what they want, 24 hours a day." And hence you have what you see now. Celebrity Deathmatch, you know.

O: Which is pretty much the definition of the lowest common denominator.

PB: And I saw for the first time this sock-puppet show [Sifl & Olly Show], which I'd heard about but never seen. It looked very... cheap. Both those shows are very cheap to produce, and it looks like it. It's basically like a step above public access. Both those shows are, with the humor and everything. It's probably just two white guys indulging themselves and being gross and pissing off the squares and crap like that.

O: What period of Hate would the HBO series be set in?

PB: It's actually a hodgepodge. It's basically the later Hates. With MTV, we were going back to the first issue of Hate, almost literally. It was all about Buddy being a slacker in Seattle. To appeal to the college-age kids, we made Buddy college-age again. With HBO, it's pretty much the latter-day color Hates where he's back in New Jersey and he has a business, but we've also mixed and mooshed it up with the early ones. It takes place in suburban New Jersey, but Stinky and Valerie and George are all there. I just crammed them into it. And the reason we did that is because the folks at HBO really liked the relationship... They liked the idea of Buddy being older, and they liked this whole idea of Buddy and everybody else moving back into their parents' house. That whole [business of] starting all over again, kind of like you fucked up the first time, so now you have to try being a grown-up all over again. They also liked the love triangle with Valerie and Lisa, and they also liked his relationship with Stinky and George. So we just took those five characters and crammed them into the suburban setting.

O: Are you tired of any of those characters?

PB: No, no. A shortage of ideas is the least of my problems.

O: Is it good to have Stinky back among the living?

PB: Yeah, sure. I'm not an experienced TV writer, so they hooked me up with a guy who is, and I've been collaborating on this script with him. And this guy in particular has a field day writing for Stinky. Stinky actually translates real well to television. Especially typical sitcom-type television writing, because he's easily the butt of a lot of jokes, but he's someone you can have throw one-liners and insults. And that's something everyone writing for sitcoms these days is trying to do, to be both the recipient and practitioner of the zingy one-liners. At the same time, though, we're having a really hard time translating Lisa. The folks I'm working with just find her way too weird and quirky. It's real tricky and very different writing for television, as opposed to writing for comics. And when you're trying to put her in a TV-show setting, all the people I'm working with—who aren't dumb people at all; they're real smart folks—just find her almost hopelessly unlikable. But I find her totally likable. But that was always the problem with the comic book anyway. A lot of people who read Hate didn't like her, and she was always my favorite character. I love Lisa. She's massively insecure and clingy and manipulative, and a lot of people just find people like that repulsive. They're not the least bit charmed by them.

O: I can see where she'd be difficult to turn into animation. Her mood seemed to change from frame to frame.

PB: Oh, yeah. And that's another thing, too. That was something my director at MTV had such a hard time learning. When she finally learned it, she was like, "Oh, okay." But it's still tricky how almost everybody flip-flops from line to line. Even Buddy will be barking at somebody in one line, and then his whole demeanor changes. He'll do a 180. Almost all the characters do it. They all flip-flop from line to line. It takes a while for everybody when I'm trying to write this stuff with someone who's never written these characters before. It always takes them a while to figure that out.

O: So what are you doing now, comics-wise?

PB: I'm writing a monthly comic book for DC. It's an all-ages comic and it's called Yeah! Gilbert Hernandez is drawing it. My wife [Joanne Bagge] is coloring it.

O: Do you feel co-opted?

PB: No, it's something I want to do. Because it's monthly, DC wants six issues finished before they release one of them. So I'm already working on the fifth issue and Gilbert has the third issue all finished. But the first one won't be out until July or August.

O: What's it like?

PB: It's a total rip-off of The Spice Girls crossed with Josie And The Pussycats. It's about an all-girl band who live in suburban New Jersey. And here on Earth, they're the most unpopular band in the world, but in outer space, all the aliens love them. There's another flip-flop for you. When they go out in outer space, they get their asses kissed, but when they come back here, they're treated like dirt.

O: It's like being big in Japan.

PB: Exactly. "They love me in Europe." It was an idea I had to do as a backup strip when an editor at DC called me up and asked me if I had any ideas that might be suitable for them. When I mentioned this idea, she loved it. I'm kind of doing it for my daughter, who's eight. She always complained that I don't do comics that little girls will want to read. And I was like, "All right, you'd better like this thing." And she does. She's fascinated by it. She can't wait for it to come out. She and her friends are always looking at it. Recently, she and a friend of hers came down... Gilbert Hernandez faxed me the latest bunch of pages, and it showed one of the girls kissing an alien. She wound up with an alien boyfriend who Gilbert made look like one of the sea monkeys from those old sea-monkey ads. And there she is, kissing this alien. So then, later on, my daughter and her friend went upstairs and they were drawing, and I found this drawing. I couldn't believe it: This friend of my daughter's did a drawing of this alien kissing her mom. [Laughs.] It was very freaky.

O: It makes you wonder what you've done.

PB: Yeah, my mom the adulteress, with a green blob.

O: It's been long enough now that you can kind of look back on it, but how did you feel in the early '90s when the slacker and Gen-X thing was being defined, and you were being lumped in with it?

PB: That was fine with me, because it was free publicity. It's so hard, especially when you're in a... I can't come up with the right word... something that's as maligned and ignored as not only comics, but alternative comics. Where it's so hard to get your stuff distributed and out there and familiar to the average person. Plus, when you're published by somebody like Fantagraphics—which is not part of some corporation and is extremely limited, resources-wise—you're a fool not to take total advantage of any hook you can to get people to know and talk about and read your comic. When you read something about younger people, like young acts and young bands, or even young writers or artists, they always complain when they feel like their whole shtick has been pigeonholed into one or two words. But sooner or later, they've got to realize that it has to be that way. Anybody who's a real fan of yours, they know there's a lot more to you than just whatever that one- or two-word description is. Like, "Oh your comic is a slacker comic." But, of course, anyone who's intimately familiar with Hate will know better. Even if you're the smartest person in the world, your brain can only handle so much information. So if you're not familiar at all with alternative comics, you've never seen my comic, and if you hear about it somewhere, or you ask somebody about it, or somebody's telling you about it, if that person gives you a paragraph-long description of my comic, you're not going to remember it. Even if you're Albert Einstein. I have absolutely no problem at all with it. Of course, it was like a double-edged sword. At first, when people thought Seattle/grunge/ slacker, when young people thought that was cool, it might have benefited me by making someone curious to pick up my book and read it. Whereas, now that that stuff is not considered cool, it's passe, it might make someone not pick up my book and read it. But that has never been reflected in the sales at all. At the height of all this grunge and slacker stuff, this Seattle stuff, the sales weren't any higher than they were last year. The sales stayed the same all the way through. While it seems like something I lived and died by, the truth of the matter is that I haven't suffered from it at all. I've only benefited from it. So, hooray for slackerdom.

O: When do you think your drawing style first gelled?

PB: Well, there were always hints of it there. When I first decided to become a cartoonist, even though my work was incredibly crude, when I showed my work around... Like, when I showed it to Harvey Kurtzman and people like Art Spiegelman trying to get it published, they would tell me, quite correctly, that I still had a long way to go in a professional sense, that I really had to clean up my act before they would consider publishing me. But they said, "You have this distinctive style that you just have to draw out. All you have to do is just clean up what you're doing. Learn to ink better, letter better, just real simple nuts-and-bolts stuff like that. Learn your basic cartooning skills more and hone all that stuff, but you've already got this distinct style, and just by cleaning it up and honing it, it'll shine more and show more." And that's exactly what happened.

O: Would you say that your coming into your own as an artist coincided with your finding your voice as a writer?

PB: I pretty much feel like I came into my own toward the end of Neat Stuff, as far as being an artist and a writer. It kind of all fell into place once I started doing Hate, or by Hate #2 and to a lesser extent in the middle of the run of Neat Stuff. For me, drawing comics is real hard work. It's laborious and time-consuming, and I'm real impatient by nature. So for that reason alone, it's a lot more fun for me just writing. Like, even though this script I'm writing at the moment for HBO is a struggle, and I've got a bit of a learning curve, it's still a walk in the park compared to doing a comic strip. Just sitting and working at a word processor and writing, no matter how much trouble I'm having with a script, is just so much easier than drawing a comic. Comics are so hard to do, and I'm not exaggerating. Not only do you have to be an artist; you also have to write, and you also have to be an actor and a director. Even just doing one illustration for somebody, even like one big, detailed full-color drawing is so much easier than a comic strip. Because in a comic, you're also telling a story. Not just through pictures, but through the words, and you're doing a whole series of drawings, so each drawing is a separate illustration and they all have to work together. And then you have to take all those drawings and make them arrange and work somehow on that one page. I can't begin to describe to you how much harder it is to do a comic strip than to be an illustrator or just a writer. It's way harder. And it surprises me, too, how little respect... For the amount of hours and effort I put into it, I am routinely paid more to just write, or to just do an illustration, than I am to do a comic. Comics, both financially and in the way they're looked upon in the public, are so underrated. It is such a fucking bitch to do a comic, and it is so underpaid compared to what writers get and illustrators get. Cartoonists work much harder, and you have to have a lot more skill to be good at it than to just be a writer or an illustrator. And yet they're not nearly as well respected or well compensated as those two. It's a strange thing, but it's a little bit like, well, fuck it. I'm just going to be a writer now. I'll just do illustrations. I'm very much not at all inclined to do my own comics any more, where I write and draw the things. It's just too much work for not nearly enough money. And I feel like I've already killed myself doing more comics than anybody over the last 20 years. So when people say, "Oh, I really miss that you don't do comics any more. I wish you did your own stuff and were drawing it." It's like, "Fuck it, I've got 20 years worth of comics; isn't that enough for ya? Read the old stuff over again. Or read somebody else's comics. Let some other young maniac bust his ass like I did for 20 years."

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